A man, roughly in his 60s, immediately stood out to Dan Buettner during his travels in search of another blue zone. A self-made millionaire, Douglas Foo began the food chain Sakae Sushi in Singapore in 1997 at age 28. Buettner describes Foo as family-oriented, driven, and energetic. He loves to exercise and engages in his community through volunteer work. Most importantly, he has fun while doing it.
“He has a laugh that every time he cracks up, he leans back, opens his mouth, and decants his soul,” Buettner, founder of the Blue Zones LLC, National Geographic fellow and best-selling author, tells Fortune in a sit-down interview. “You can’t help but be happy around him.”
Buettner has traveled the world, researching the happiest and healthiest cities for two decades. During his quest, he has lessons from the residents and environments of the five named blue zones, which produce the longest-living communities.
Following a nearly 15-year hiatus, Buettner announces Foo’s home of Singapore as the most recent blue zone to join the ranks. In many ways, Foo embodies the ethos of this newly recognized blue zone, which Buettner details in his new book, The Blue Zones: The Secrets for Living Longer.
“With boundless enthusiasm and irrepressible energy, Foo epitomized the Singaporean ideal of success,” Buettner writes in his book’s introduction of Singapore.
Buettner recalls Foo telling him, “Singapore has given me so much, and I don’t do enough to give back.”
Since the early 2000s, when Gianni Pes designated Sardinia, Italy the inaugural blue zone city, Buettner set his sights on finding other cities with similar statistics and communities. Since 2009, four more blue zones have joined the ranks: Loma Linda, California; Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; and Nicoya, Costa Rica.
Buettner calls Singapore the “blue zone 2.0—the next frontier of aging” in his new book, which highlights much more than the enthusiasm of the residents themselves. The health data, landscape, and policy incentives have established the multicultural island of Indian, Malay, and Chinese influence as a beacon of health and happiness.
Introducing the world’s 6th blue zone
Buettner was first intrigued by Singapore in 2005 when he wrote a cover story for National Geographic on happiness, he tells Fortune. Since then, he’s met with residents and pored over data, analyzing the island’s health metrics. The life expectancy has grown by 20 years since 1960, and the number of centenarians doubled in the last decade, Buettner writes in his book.
“In addition to having very high life satisfaction, they were producing the longest and healthiest population,” he says.
Unlike the other blue zones, whose longevity metrics stem from years of history, culture and tradition, Singapore’s status comes from implemented change over time.
“It’s an engineered blue zone, instead of one that emerged organically like the other five,” Buettner says, noting how Singapore transitioned to an urban hub in the last few decades. “They have manifestly produced the outcome we want.”
With policies aimed at keeping people intergenerationally engaged, walking, and purchasing healthy foods, Singapore represents healthy longevity.
Transportation and exercise
In his travels, Buettner observed how Singapore’s walkways protected residents from the sun, with “intentional green space that make it aesthetically pleasing.”
Pedestrian-focused signage covers the city, making it safe for people to travel by foot. The island also has taxation on cars and gasoline, putting money into a robust subway system where people live no more than 400 yards away from a station, he adds. Beyond the environmental benefits of public transit, people have physical exercise and connection built into their routine by walking and taking public transit.
“Pedestrians are favored over the motorist when navigating your way through town,” Buettner says. “They’re getting 10 or 20,000 steps a day without even thinking about it.”
Access to healthy food
Buettner was amazed by Singapore’s food shopping scene. Healthy food was subsidized, incentivizing people to buy whole foods with abundant nutrients over more highly processed foods (Buettner has yet to see this initiative implemented widely across the globe or in other blue zones).
On a systematic scale, Singapore’s government reduced the amount of sugar in sweetened beverages and added healthy food labels to items with limited amounts of sugar, fat, and sodium.
“People are mindlessly consuming less sugar,” Buettner says.
A city plays a significant role in establishing people’s sense of community. In a Harris poll conducted on behalf of Fortune earlier this year, being closer to support systems was a top reason people planned to move in the next two years.
“Loneliness is largely a function of environment,” Buettner says. “If you live in a cul de sac in the suburbs, and especially if you don’t like your neighbors, you’re very unlikely to serendipitously run into someone and have a conversation.”
Singapore’s architecture serves as an antidote to loneliness itself. People live in high rises, which reflect the population’s diversity. Residents can congregate at local food vendors, markets, and outdoor spaces.
“You share tables and you’re interacting with the stall user, interacting with the person next to you,” Buettner says. “The chances you’re going to run into an old friend or make a new friend are exponentially higher.”
Buettner describes a hospital in Singapore as a “Four Seasons Resort.” The hospital’s layout mirrors a luxury hotel with outdoor spaces, restaurants, and classes, bringing the wider community together, he writes. With a focus on optimizing elders’ healthspan by preventing chronic disease in their final years, the hospital Buettner visited has a program that dispatches nurses into the community. They help with free screenings and connect patients with healthier food if needed.
Officials have also implemented a ‘National Steps Challenge’ where residents can redeem points and use them at local restaurants and shops after logging 10,000 steps per day.
Singaporieans get a tax break if their aging parents live with or near them, Buettner says. It encourages families to stay close in proximity to their children and grandchildren.
“Aging parents are this wonderful source of resilience, of wisdom of agricultural and culinary knowledge that we just warehouse in retirement homes,” he says. “Here in Singapore, partially because of some smart policy to encourage it, it’s harnessed every day.”
Another project called Kampung Admiralty developed in 2018 aims to connect seniors to nature and people of all generations.
“The fact that we have this population that engineered health gives us a source of lessons that American policymakers ought to be paying attention to if we also want a healthy disease free population,” Buettner says, who notes how 70% of Singapore residents trust their government.
The Kampung Admiralty houses an indoor park, performance centers, food courts, apartments, and a medical center; the elder care and preschool were engineered next to each other, Buettner writes.
“[In the U.S.], we live in a toxic food environment and an environment that promotes a sedentary, lonely lifestyle. And that’s not going to change until we start passing policies that make walking easier and making healthy food easier than junk food. And we have to stop beating the dead horse of individual responsibility,” Buettner says.
While Buettner searches for blue zone contenders, he admits he’ll be hard-pressed to find another “organic blue zone.” Blue Zone 2.0s, on the other hand, are up for grabs.
“The big lesson there when it comes to connecting socially, moving more mindlessly, is for our government to think about engineering spaces that bring people who are on foot together,” he says.